What it is to be a “learning worker” (an interview)

brain-770044_640Earlier today I was interviewed by Gina and Taylor for the June 2015 event of the iSpring Solutions Leadership Series, on the topic of From “knowledge worker” to “learning worker”. Here are the questions they asked me, and my answers – which I thought were worth sharing on my blog.

Q1 – You recently wrote a post titled, From “knowledge worker” to “learning worker”: what this means for an organisation, can you first help us define the difference between these two?

Peter Drucker coined the term, “knowledge worker”, back in 1959 as a way to describe workers who were involved in non-routine problem-solving. I think, this is one reason why organisations have believed that training knowledge workers is all about “knowledge transfer” – pouring knowledge into peoples heads. Whereas, in the past, individuals were trained to do their jobs once and this would last them their whole careers, over time, as job roles became more sophisticated or new technology or procedures were introduced, training became a full-time operation to keep people knowledgeable, skilled and up to date. But the world is changing fast, and we are now living in a era of exponential information growth. (Huge amounts of data are being created every day).  But what is more, the half life of a piece of knowledge today is just around 5 years. (It is said that a college degree will be out of date before the loan is paid off).  But all this means we need to be continuously refreshing what we know.

Training Departments can no longer keep up and provide everything everyone needs to do their job – it is now imperative for every individual to learn new things. This is the concept of the “learning worker”, the term coined by Jacob Morgan, author of “The Future of Work: it’s about individuals continuous learning for themselves and staying abreast of developments in their field of work not just through self-study but in their professional networks and other social channels. And organizations need fresh thinking and fresh ideas, to ensure they continue to grow – so everyone needs to feed back into their teams what they are discovering.

Q2: You say it’s important for today’s employees to “LEARN HOW TO LEARN.”  What do you mean by that?

By “learn how to learn” I don’t mean “learn how to study” in formal courses. etc – although that’s a part of it, but nowadays “learn how to learn” also means:

  • how to build a habit of continuous learning and keep your eyes and ears constantly open and learn from everything around you
  • how to extract the learning from your work experiences. This, after all, is how most of how we learn to do our work takes place – as we do our job 
  • how to keep up to date with what’s happening in your industry and profession – not just by going to an annual conference or reading a few industry magazines – that pretty much tells you what’s happening now, not what’s happening next – the place to find that out is in on the Social Web, in your prof social networks
  • how to recognise serendipitous learning – the accidental, unplanned learning that takes place everyday as a consequence of other things.

Q3: Most people get a job based on a knowledge set they have obtained and they expect the organization to “teach them” any new skill they should have. How can organizations foster this new “learning” expectation?

There are a number of things they can do.

  • They can help individuals understand the importance of being a continuous “learning worker” – not just for the organisation’s sake, but for the individual’s sake – in order to stay on top of and ahead of their game, and to stay employable; it’s no longer about a job for life. It is estimated that current students will have more than 10 jobs by the time they are 38.
  • They can help individuals value all the different ways of learning – especially self-organised learning – and not behave like the learning police, where they consider anything not created by them as unauthorised!
  • They can encourage individuals to “bring the outside in” and share what they have learned in a space, where sharing is valued and rewarded.
  • They can even formalise self-organised learning – if it makes them feel more comfortable – through Individual Learning Plans – aligned with job, team and org objectives. But they will also need to offer time for personal planned learning. (But note just 30 minutes a day over a year adds up to over 100 learning hours, equivalent to about 12 training days! – and I would suggest that this personal planned learning will be much more valued!)
  • They can also support encourage individuals to “own their own learning” and take responsibility for recording and evidencing it themselves – not trying to track it all, centrally, in a LMS! 

Q4: What  are some specific things that companies will have to learn, and more specifically, Learning & Development departments?  How will they need to shift?

  • Companies will need to recognise that workplace learning is more than just training people –  that’s still important but it’s not everything. Learning happens in many different ways at work – all of which need to be valued. They also need to recognise that they don’t need to track and manage everything everyone learns. The most important thing is how it is improving job, team and business performance.
  • L&D will need to offer new services – not just modernise their training – but (a) to support individual needs, and develop independent learning skills, and (b) support managers and teams learning together and sharing their experiences

Q5: You are a LEARNING WORKER. How have you seen this transform your career?

Being a learning worker hasn’t transformed my career; it has defined my career!  

  • I’m always trying to improve what I do.
  • I’m always looking for what’s next.
  • I’m always trying out new things – and learning from doing them: finding what worked, what might work better if …
  • and then sharing what I learn/find out – on my C4LPT website, here in my blog posts, in my presentations, in my books, and in my workshops

BTW I haven’t been on a course in years – I prefer to learn by “connecting the dots” myself – from stuff I’ve read, videos I’ve watched, conversations I have had or overheard both face-to-face and in social spaces – and so on.

Q6: What are some of the ways that organizations can get resistant employees to see learning as a necessary skill without having to put people in formal training programs?  

One simple way, I recommend, is for a manager to make a point in every meeting or one-on-one situation, to ask “what did you learn today?”  The first time it happens people scratch their heads and can’t think of anything. So then you suggest, spend the last 10 minutes of day reflecting on and jotting down (in a personal notebook) what you got out of the day – what worked, what didn’t, what were the “learnings” of the day.  Now you’ve got stuff to talk about next time the manager asks. And of course the next step is to get into the habit of sharing all this in your Enterprise Social Network. This is working out loud.  All this is clearly not the traditional view of workplace learning – but it is valuable learning, nonetheless! 

Q7: Are there specific steps that a person can take if they feel they are the old “knowledge worker”, to begin shifting into that learning mode? Are there resources you recommend?

Make a habit of spending 20-30 minutes on some personal planned learning; put an alert on your computer or phone to remind you it’s time to do it.

But first think about what you’d like to improve – and how you’d like to do it? And then consider the vast opportunities open to you on the Web

  • through formal ways – there are lots of free online courses (and MOOCs) available
  • through informal ways – building a PLN, reading blogs or simply getting Google alerts on new stuff of interest

And don’t forget to spend some of that time, reflecting on what you have learned and how you are going to put what yoy’ve learned into action.

I read a good article the other day, that really sums it up, When It Comes To Ongoing HR Development, It’s Really Up To You.  

And clearly if you want to help others become “learning workers” you need to be one yourself, first! 

[Note: Find out more about supporting learning workers in my new book, Modern Workplace Learning]

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Jane Hart

Founder at C4LPT
Jane Hart is an independent workplace learning advisor, writer and international speaker, and is the Founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies. She focuses on helping organisations with Modern Workplace Learning and individuals with Modern Professional Learning workshops. Find out more about Jane at JaneHart.com.

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9 thoughts on “What it is to be a “learning worker” (an interview)

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  3. John Laskaris

    Jane, really liked this interview and your attitude to learning – so encouraging and motivating to keep on learning and self-developing!

    Going back to your article I find ‘building a habit of continuous learning’ quite challenging. Making something a habit is a simple process but when it comes to learning it requires from us more devotion and I bet not everyone can handle with this e.g. when working hard or having a rough day. But I believe the very attitude and self-motivation may change a lot 🙂

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  6. Khalid Joomaye

    Jane, I really enjoyed reading this interview. It has certainly answered a few questions that I had as I start a new role with scope to move from numerous development programmes to a continuous learning culture.

    Have you got any thoughts on how to help people move away from the expectation of going on a course to more self-directed learning? I am sure that it starts with getting people to be more explicit about what they need to learn and the different ways they can learn about it.

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